The Hard Way — Part 2

James Huffaker
7 min readJan 11, 2021

Growing up and becoming an adult, the hard way

Mostly healed up and ready to go to school, I had no idea what to expect. I never had any real ‘sit and listen’ drilled into me. Certainly no one ever invoked the ‘be quiet’ rule, that I can remember. Until that day, it was the strangest thing to me. Told where to sit, told where to hang my jacket and put the snow boots when we had them, I had already learned far too much for one day at school.

Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

After all the kids had been active for a few minutes, the teacher blew a whistle gently at first then with a little more determination she had overpowered the sound of five and six year olds conversing. Then we learned something else. It was the put your head down on your desk for three minutes torture challenge. It was my profound honor to end up standing by the radiator facing the wall. I was then bored and so all alone, I started humming. Funny thing, if you can’t see someone you can’t always pinpoint the sound of humming. She told the class three times, “whoever is humming stop it.” Since I was not in the class, I was guarding the radiator, she couldn’t have been talking to me. That was just when the dowel she carried came across my butt.

I lifted my head up and look at her with my best ‘what was that for’ face.

“Stop Humming.” she ordered. All I could do was look down, I had never figured out that if you were humming to yourself that perhaps other people heard you. Another lesson, all in the same week. All these lessons in class and I couldn’t tell anyone that I had learned them.

I probably need to reveal that I was not my parents first child, or second, that was my brother. I was the third child and seemed to arrive at a very difficult time for my parents. The only reason I can write about this now is both our parents are deceased, any of my teachers of the time are deceased and except for the aforementioned cousin, who is particularly forgiving, no one knows this except now you and the world. That’s some coming out, eh, the secret is that my parents either never tried or just failed completely to provide potty training.

Close your mouth, it is true. I had little to no idea what to do in a bathroom at that time. Absolutely had never done it by myself, and had a morbid fear of walking into one of the huge 1950’s institutional bathrooms for school kids. To put the icing on that bit of news, I really had no idea where the bathrooms were in the colossal concrete edifice , I had to follow someone I knew to get to my classroom. It took a little time, but I did pick up on what was going on and my need to get with the program. It was difficult doing it on my own. My cousin understood my problem and one day walked me down the hall to where the bathrooms were. I went in but it didn’t seem to be familiar, soon I would get it figured out.

My parents knew about my accidents but never related the fact to a failure of them to prepare me. I remember now clearly that both of them would humiliate me by joking about my problem. What I don’t remember is getting any help or direction from them, no support like ‘let’s walk into the bathroom at school and I will help you so you feel comfortable’. It was long into first grade before the embarrassment that I experienced overcame the fear of flying and I was able to use the schools rest rooms.

There were some interesting things I learned at 30 and then more at 60 that they never told me. Those revelations will come out at the appropriate time. For now, I am in kindergarten and the problem child. It is all true, we can’t even conceive of it today but I was so difficult that I tried to write with my left hand. The teacher was horrified. I had special attention every day to write with the correct hand, the right hand. The teacher brought in a mirror and it sat on the desk by my paper. My right hand would scrawl across the page but it somehow worked with the mirror and I was making letters. It was much easier with the left hand. Eventually the right hand was trained to scrawl readable letters and I was forced to use only the correct hand to write from then on. Only now in hindsight and studying some child phycology do I realize how much that change forced my life into doing things the hard way.

Every day in kindergarten and through second grade we received a free box of milk, and could choose white or chocolate. That was so important to me, even today looking back, I remember fine details of almost everything. What I don’t remember is being fed regularly at home. At least not in this first house in my memory.

Trying hard to remember, it is like a movie, I clearly picture the kitchen, black and white tile squares, yellow formica table on steel legs and matching chairs. I played under the table and chairs much of the time while mom sat and drank coffee and smoked. What I can not remember is seeing any food on that table or sitting in a chair or highchair eating. We apparently received free lunches at school because I don’t remember any transactions, like in higher grades, for lunch tickets. Hot fresh food, sometimes it was a food I had never seen before but it was delicious. Talking with my brother, he is seventy now, he remembers the same. Those lunches were our salvation. If we were almost first in line and ate fast, we could get back in line for seconds.

I did not know then and I still cannot say that our parents were bad parents. They grew up during the depression in a hard place to be poor. I remember dad telling me once that bread was a nickel and he might have to work for a long time to make a nickel helping local farms with small jobs after school to help the family. Alcohol must have been cheaper than bread for some reason. Stories from my mother and father tell of difficulty getting enough food, but didn’t seem to have a problem with alcohol. By the time war found the United States, dad was a full blown alcoholic, but the Army didn’t care just then. Mom became an auto garage mechanic and recapped tires to put food on the family table. Her dad had one of the few real jobs at the time, he was an engineer on the train and the trains were in heavy demand.

There is no record of how exactly they met and got married. My cousin in New Mexico does genealogy and family stories; perhaps if anyone reads this I will do some research with her and fill in the blanks. The two did meet and had Sally, then Tom came along not quite two years later. Names have been changed because I haven’t permission from them to use their names. That isn’t really important by now. The only real family thing I know to relate is; dad always had a problem with Chinese food. Not that he didn’t like it, but every time I remember or have heard of them eating Chinese food, he would get completely stupid drunk. Unable to stand drunk, don’t look at me or we will fight drunk. When I was seven, we moved out of town to a small farm, almost a ranch if there had been animals. It was there that mom quite often made that favorite, all from cans, Chinese Chow Mein as we were all growing up.

After the kids, mom and dad did not have a good relationship. They were learning to do this the hard way and being loving partners would have made it easier. I would be tempted to say never, but to be fair I think I remember a couple times before I was six that mom and dad seemed to be getting along. That doesn’t mean loving. There is no memory of ever seeing mom and dad in each others arms, embracing, even a hug and never saw them kiss. It was no wonder I had so much to learn on my own. I was sustained by watered down Coke and pretzels much of the time that we lived in that first house. Sitting at the end of the bar watching Stan make drinks. Instead of tipping Stan, they bought him a drink. Later in the evening everyone was drunk. Something I have observed about the group of men that worked hardest, fought in the war(s), and raised families; no matter how drunk they might be, most of them maintained dignity. Something in them from learning so much life the hard way, they hold on to that as if it’s all they have.

Trying to stay on topic here, it is easy to slip and slide. Now you know way much about me. Have you given thought to your hard lessons in life? The rest of my story will be more interesting if you have looked inside and seen your story in some of my words. But I will continue, we are not even at the fun parts.

…. to be continued

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James Huffaker

aka Ben Moreland, retired. Interested in science, technology and future of earthlings. Sometimes I see things a bit different.